Rep. Bill Owens announced Tuesday he will not run for a fourth term this November.
The decision may ripple through national political circles because Owens is a rarity: a Democrat who has won three elections in a North Country congressional district represented by Republicans for almost all of the last 150 years. Three Republicans started campaigning for Owens' seat months ago, and so far no other Democrat has stepped up to run - although Owens' announcement leaves time for that.
Owens, a lawyer and Air Force veteran from Plattsburgh, has represented the North Country in the House of Representatives since 2009, when he won a special election. He replaced Rep. John McHugh, a Republican from Pierrepont Manor whom President Barack Obama had chosen to be Army secretary.
Rep. Bill Owens talks while visiting a bison farm in Vermontville in October.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Owens reinforced the statement he made in a press release that the reason for his sudden decision was to spend more time with his family.
"It was a series of conversations with my family, decisions about our personal life," Owens said. "After some struggle over the Christmas holidays, we decided to move forward with it now as we're getting into the campaign season. It's a decision we came to as a group, and one that I'm very comfortable with because I think that's the road that I need to take at this point in my life."
Owens said there weren't any other factors - like personal health issues, lack of campaign funds or partisan bickering - that contributed to the decision.
"I've had three very tight races, but clearly I've won all three," Owens said. "I'm not afraid of another fight; I've just decided it's time to move on."
Owens said the idea to not seek re-election has been in the back of his mind for about six weeks. He said his primary goal for the rest of the year will be to help improve the economy in the North Country, although he wouldn't give specifics as to how he would accomplish that.
Owens said some of his colleagues had expressed disappointment in his decision. He wouldn't comment on who he thinks would be a good Democratic candidate for his seat, but he did give examples of the traits he thinks would be a good fit for the district.
"I think the most important thing someone can do for this district is represent the constituents, which to my mind means that they will not be wedded to party ideology," Owens said. "I would hope that someone focuses on being bipartisan, as I've done."
Owens said he thinks a Democrat can still claim his seat, even with his withdrawal from the race.
"I don't believe that my race will impact that," Owens said. "We've won it three times, and I think there's a good likelihood that, since the president took the district by 5 (percentage) points, that we'll come up with another good candidate who will be able to succeed in the district."
On the street
On Saranac Lake's Main Street Tuesday afternoon, people didn't show much reaction to the news. While everyone the Enterprise asked seemed to have heard of Owens, most said they don't know much about him and don't follow politics closely.
"Bill Owens is a Democrat, right?" said Sarah Curtis, working at the Main Street Exchange thrift store. "I know some cool people who are rooting for him, so I'm assuming he was cool."
"He probably got tired," said her father, John Curtis.
"I think he was doing good," Steve Duprey said of Owens. "I think he did a lot of good for the North Country. I'd rather see him run for re-election."
"I think he tried to do his best up here," said Linda Daunais, "but I think there's probably always somebody out there that can do a better job, and hopefully we can find one."
"I'd like to see someone do something," Steve Whitman said. "This place is dying. You walk through town, you see empty stores all the time, you know? We need money. We need jobs. Same old story."
From the parties
Responses from each side of the political aisle have been predictably divided.
Ian Prior, Northeast regional press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, slammed Democrats in a press release.
"Bill Owens is just the latest Democrat who would rather hang 'em up than have to spend the next year defending Obamacare and other Democratic economic policies that haven't evolved since Jimmy Carter was president," Prior wrote. "It's looking more and more likely that the 21st District will elect a strong Republican leader in 2014 who will go to Washington and fight for better jobs, a more limited and efficient government, and against Obamacare's job-killing medical device tax."
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel chided such harsh language.
"It has been an honor to serve with Bill Owens, someone who always put his constituents first and has been a tireless advocate for New Yorkers," Israel said in a press release. "Bill has set an example by always coming together to solve problems and working together to create jobs. While Republicans are already fighting a bitter and divisive primary, I have no doubt that another commonsense Democrat will fill his shoes in this competitive district that Democrats have held for the past three elections."
Israel noted that President Barack Obama won the district in 2008 and 2012, and Owens won the district in three consecutive elections. He also pointed out that in 2010, Sen. Charles Schumer received 60.2 percent of the vote and Gov. Andrew Cuomo received 59.9 percent of the vote in Owens' district.
Franklin County Republican Committee Chairman Ray Scollin, of Saranac Lake, said Owens deserves respect and appreciation, but the district is ready to move on.
"Bill Owens served our country, and I'm appreciative of that," Scollin said. "Anyone that puts that kind of time and energy into Congress is deserving of our thanks, but many positions he took in Congress were not in step with what I think people in the 21st Congressional District are believing."
Scollin used Owens' backing of the Affordable Care Act as evidence.
"Even after the impact became a reality instead of a theory, Bill Owens doubled down and got behind the ACA," Scollin said. "The 21st Congressional District is ready for change. What's going on in Washington isn't working, and Bill Owens played a part in that. I think that's the reality."
Franklin County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Kathy Fleury could not be reached.
Meanwhile, county Republican committees across the 21st District started their candidate vetting process last week. The three potential candidates - Joseph M. Gilbert of DeKalb Junction, Michael F. Ring of Adams Center and Elise M. Stefanik of Willsboro - will be interviewed by each county's Republican committee, and each committee will then make a decision on which candidate to endorse. Those results will be put to a weighted vote for an official 21st District Republican Party endorsement.
Franklin County held its meeting with the candidates Tuesday, and the last meeting will be held in Jefferson County on Jan. 30. An endorsement is expected soon thereafter.
"I think that there are candidates who are phenomenal," Scollin said. "It transcends a party feeling. This time of year we have to look at who are the strong candidates. We have to stop talking about Republican-Democrat. I think we are going to produce a candidate who is going to make people of the 21st District happy regardless of their party affiliation."
Scollin said he's happy Owens isn't running, but he said the Republican Party was in good shape either way.
"Beating an incumbent is always difficult, but I don't think that was the feeling when I talked to most of the county chairs," Scollin said. "I feel like he (Owens) was quite vulnerable. I think this was a great development for the New York 21st Congressional District."
Managing Editor Peter Crowley contributed to this report.